People of Japan: Making a difference in a big way

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“People often ask me: are you not depressed and disappointed by ever-increasing refugee problems? My answer is no. I say “no” because refugee problems can be solved.” – Sadako Ogata

As a young woman in Japan in the 1940s, Sadako Ogata (née Nakamura) would not have been expected to be particularly ambitious. Although her father was a diplomat, and politics ran in her blood through her mother’s side (Sadako’s grandfather was a high-ranking politician, and her great-grandfather briefly served as Prime Minister of Japan before unfortunately being assassinated), the career Sadako built for herself – even the fact that she had a career at all, really – was not the expected path for a woman to take at the time.

Although born in Tokyo, Sadako didn’t really have a typical Japanese childhood. Her father’s job took him to the United States and China, so Sadako was raised outside of Japan until her return to the country in fifth grade. For a time upon her return, her subsequent education was very typical of a Japanese upper-class young woman, and she attended an academy for young ladies, and graduated with a degree in Japanese and English literature from the university extension of that same academy – the University of the Sacred Heart, in Tokyo, a private women’s university that to this day focuses solely on Liberal Arts.

Sadako_Ogata© Wikipedia

But Sadako had no intention of following the typical path for a Japanese young lady any further. Having already lived outside of Japan as a child, Sadako had tasted internationalism, and she had ambition. Unusually for a Japanese woman of that time – although not without the support of her family – she decided to continue her education overseas, and moved back to America, where she studied at Georgetown University, and in 1963, was awarded a PhD in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley. Getting hitched in 1960 and raising two kids apparently never even slowed her down.

Perhaps due to her experience navigating Japanese society after growing up immersed in non-Japanese cultures, Sadako is known to be very interested in the internationalisation of Japan and how the country relates to the rest of the world. For many years, her career path was two-fold. She worked in academia at two different universities, as a lecturer, then a professor, and finally, as Dean for the Faculty of Foreign Studies at Sophia University in Tokyo – one of Japan’s most selective private universities. During this time, she was also appointed as a member of the United Nations. It is for her work with the UN that she is most widely known.

A member of the Mission of Japan to the United Nations since 1968, Sadako represented Japan in several different capacities. Then, in 1990, she was appointed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). She resigned from her academic career to focus fully on this role.

Photo copyright Eric Miller / World Economic Forum 2008 Africa Summit, Cape Town, 3 - 6 June 2008 emiller@iafrica.com Sadako Ogata during the Africa Economic Brainstorming session
© Eric Miller / World Economic Forum 2008

During her time as High Commissioner, Sadako strove passionately to improve the lot of refugees from regions including Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and the Great Lakes region of Africa. She advocated strongly for the right of refugees to be able to return and live peacefully in their own country, but at the same time worked to provide support allowing them to rebuild their lives elsewhere. Some of the strategies she used in pursuit of this goal were unprecedented, and under her guidance, the Office of the UNHCR thrived, becoming increasingly involved in their assistance efforts, and more than doubling their budget and staff.

Sadako’s efforts have touched troubled areas all over the world. She spent ten years as UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But even when she chose to move on from this role, she wasn’t done. Instead, she continued her humanitarian efforts, first as co-chair of the newly-established UN Human Security Commission from 2001, and then as President of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) – which promotes international cooperation and assists economic and social growth in developing countries – from 2003 until her retirement in 2012.

Benigno_Aquino_III_Sadako_Ogata_and_Shijuro_Ogata_20131214_2© Wikipedia

Sadako’s humanitarian and diplomatic achievements have earned her numerous honours, but none more impressive than her own ongoing commitment to human rights and helping those in need all over the world. Throughout her lifetime she has been academic, diplomat, humanitarian, and much more besides. Although time and time again she came up against forces working contrary to her goal of protecting global human rights, she never gave up, and for more than 40 years worked her hardest to help people all over the world in one of the biggest ways possible.

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